Who owns the Public Space?

Who Owns The Public Space?


In 2016, at the opening of Revolving Art Incubator (RAI), the writer and Fulbright scholar Katie Fernelius described the RAI Incubator as a space marked by the movement of the sun, the artist and the passer-by. Over the last two years, we engaged the motion of people, time, space and ideas at our incubator space in Victoria Island; establishing our ethos as a place of knowledge sharing, collaboration, and redefinition, and as an incubator dedicated to creatives.

Our ethos became the starting point for our urban intervention and renegotiation project, looking specifically at decolonizing art production and consumption specifically in the city of Lagos while highlighting the role of communal and public spaces as a place of constant negotiation between the artist and the people.

Situated along the emergency exit at the Silverbird Galleria Victoria Island Lagos, RAI's location, utilizing the stairwell and landings at the Galleria gives unlimited access to all, proposing a non-privileged consumption of art,  while extending art appreciation beyond the art circle enthusiasts to include the everyday people, including the passers-by; this directly interrogates the functionality of privately owned public spaces in the city of Lagos, 

Programs at our Incubator Space such as Artist-At-Work, Art+VR, outSPOKENWords-As TherapyRAI artist talksRAI book-drive, periodic presentations and exhibitions and our public space intervention projects such as Art Takes Community and the collaborate project Animate Old Lagos aims to directly engage the role of communal spaces in shaping artistic practice and the visual language.

The public arena has always been a significant space of engagement historically. Within the Nigerian context, the functional specificities of these public spaces are domiciled in each courtyard, village square, and town hall, as predetermined by the community; a place where communal legacies and histories are shared and engaged by “all” and knowledge is transferred from one generation to another.

Many examples exist within our cultural milieu such as "adugbo" and "ilu" in Yoruba communal living, historical "ilu" referenced several genealogically related agbole's or Iga (quarters), which are regarded as the basic social and political unit within this archetype. Within this structure of the community, lies a central space which serves as the rallying point for all; "Esa" open communal space or square surrounded by trees, such as "igi odan" or "igi adaba " around which meetings take place and life is performed and knowledge shared.

One of the key tragedies of the 4th republic in Nigeria is the dispossession of commons and shared public spaces, evident in the systematic auctioning of public buildings and common spaces under the privatization and commercialization Act of 1999 of the Obasanjo Administration (1999-2007); this effectively handed over public assets to a select few. Claessen in the Early State (1978) opined that land, which was regarded as an indispensable prerequisite of production was the collective property of the town/community, so also are public spaces, a necessary element of communal engagement and development. 
As the movement of the seat of power from Lagos to Abuja  was finalized during the Obasanjo dispensation, the act left a trail of abandoned spaces and buildings all across the city, now predominantly owned by individuals, who have deprived communities of communal spaces, causing the citizens to readapt and renegotiate their use of public spaces within the city of Lagos and far beyond, and bringing to the fore the question of  “Who owns the public space?.

Rapid urbanization and gentrification within the city in the last two decades instructed the need for Lagosians to renegotiate the public space, a move which witnessed a shift to privately owned public spaces, and or places of commerce where groups of people share a daily interaction such as the bus stop, the newspaper stand, bukateria, the market, the football viewing centers, beer parlor, lounges, religious centers and invariably the malls. This development has necessitated the need to re-think the relevance of these spaces in shaping the realities of contemporary living and the role of artists and other creatives within these realities in the city of Lagos.

Jeremy Bonham in his 2013 article  “Are Shopping Malls Private or Public Space?: The Affect on Hanging out at the Mall" attempted to analyze what makes a space public even if it sounds utopian; “A space where all are welcome and where ideas and thoughts can be freely shared". He went further to opine that the advent of globalization tested the idea of public spaces as the western shopping malls are suggested to be the new town squares or public space in which all can come and be with “community” even though the coming together is driven by commerce. Therefore the importance of engaging them.

The Silverbird Galleria Victoria Island which was commissioned in 2004 and listed on the malls official website as the “first international mall and cineplex” in the city of Lagos became a meeting point for social engagement, eschewing popular culture of fast food, cinema and at some point served the purpose of providing a rallying point for the "community"of urbane Lagosians. The city of Lagos within the last decade experienced a growing mall culture with the commissioning of well over 20 malls spread across the city on the island and the mainland.

Even though the mall provides a space for commonality in a public sphere, it lacks the much-needed element of communicative interaction for development within the society, as postulated by the German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, it remains simply a space of commerce. 

Our first spatial intervention at RAI was the re-thinking of the communal by locating our incubator space at the exit stairwell within the Silverbird Galleria Mall in October 2016, directly engaging the "contemporary village square"- (the mall) while using the synergy activated to begin to engage the peculiarities of art production and consumption within this specific context.
Performance Artist Yusuf Durodola Engaging, Ayò Akínwándé Thread Installation, during the opening of PowershowII on the 1st of October 2018 as part of his performance piece "Nigeria why is your head no pure" RAI 2018.
The famous Bulgarian contemporary artist Luchezar Boyadjiev in the Art of Urban Intervention further defined the public space as "the place of negotiation where all citizens, artists, passers-by, law-enforcement, and politicians permanently struggle for presence and terms of use as actors with basically equal rights”, this notion is especially true of how the incubator space at RAI has become a rallying point for many actors ensuring a constant movement of people (artists and audience), goods and services, imitating daily life in a public space, where negotiation is a constant but with the much needed communicative interaction and engagement.
We welcome you to 2019!

Jumoke Sanwo
Artist, Cultural Producer, and Creative Director
Revolving Art Incubator